Alphabet unit Google could be about to undertake the next stage of its complicated realtionship with the healthcare sector, by testing smartphones to monitor certain aspects of human health.

Reuters reported a company executive on Thursday as saying that Google planned to test whether smartphone tech can be used to capture heart sounds and eyeball images in order help people identify issues from home.

This follows on from a company announcement in February 2021, that the Google Fit app in Pixel smartphones could be used to capture heart and respiratory rates via the camera. It said at the time it planned to expand those features to more Android phones in the future.

Sensor testing

Fast forward a year, and Google’s head of health AI, Greg Corrado, was quoted by Reuters as telling reporters on Thursday that the firm was investigating whether the smartphone’s built-in microphone can detect heartbeats and murmurs when placed over the chest.

Readings could enable early detection of heart valve disorders, he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

“It’s not at the level of diagnosis but it is at the level of knowing whether there is an elevated risk,” Corrado said, noting questions remained about accuracy.

The eye research meanwhile is focused on detecting diseases, such as those related to diabetes, from photographs.

Google reportedly said it had reported “early promising results” using tabletop cameras in clinics and would now examine whether smartphone photos might work, too.

Corrado reportedly said his team saw “a future where people, with the help of their doctors, can better understand and make decisions about health conditions from their own home.”

Google also reportedly plans to test whether its artificial intelligence software can analyse ultrasound screenings taken by less-skilled technicians, as long as they follow a set pattern.

The technology could address shortages in higher-skilled workers.

Health moves

Google has long sought to bring its technical expertise to healthcare, but it has a complicated history here.

Indeed, Google’s healthcare commitment was seriously cast into doubt in August 2021, when Alphabet disbanded its unified Google Health division, and instead adopted a more distributed approach to developing health-related products.

The 570 staff at Google Health were transferred to other teams.

The head of Google Health, David Feinberg, has also left the division and joined US IT health services provider Cerner as CEO and President.

Google Health had been founded back in 2018 as a way to consolidate Google’s fractured efforts in multiple healthcare areas, under a single division.

However the unit reportedly underwent restructuring since that time.

Despite the closure of Google Health, the search engine giant was apparently remaining invested in its existing health focused projects, but there would no longer be a single entity at the tech giant focused on health projects.

Healthcare projects

Google, it should be remembered, has had its fingers in a number of healthcare related projects over the years, including Android fitness apps, medical study apps, and sleep-tracking features for its Nest Hub.

Google had announced in November 2018 that it would transfer control of DeepMind to a new Google Health division in California, as part of its efforts to commercialise its medical research efforts.

DeepMind had been acquired by Google for £400 million in 2014.

The firm had its moments in the spotlight, most notably in 2017 when a war of words erupted between Deepmind and the authors of an academic paper, which fiercely criticised a NHS patient data sharing deal.

In 2019 Google officially swallowed DeepMind Health and its team into its Google Health division.

Besides Deepmind and Android apps, Google was also involved in other health-related projects.

Perhaps the most notable was in 2014, when Google and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis agreed to develop ‘smart’ contact lenses, designed to help people with diabetes track their blood glucose levels.

And in 2019 Google’s then London-based DeepMind artificial intelligence unit created a working prototype of what would be its first commercial medical device, the result of the unit’s three-year collaboration with Moorfields Eye Hospital.

DeepMind performed a retinal scan and real-time diagnosis on a patient who had agreed to be examined publicly.

The scan was analysed by DeepMind’s algorithms in Google’s cloud, which provided an urgency score and a detailed analysis in about 30 seconds.

Fitbit deal

And let’s not forget Google’s Fitbit division.

In November 2019 Google had announced its intention to purchase Fitbit for $2.1bn (£1.63bn), but almost immediately concerns were raised the deal would give Google access to potentially sensitive data about people’s health and lifestyle.

Those concerns prompted European Union antitrust officials to begin an official investigation in August 2020.

The EU then extended the investigation until the end of 2020, yet approval of the deal seemed certain after it was reported in September that Google was prepared to make fresh concessions.

Google made increased concessions to European Union regulators in November 2020, and the protracted deal to acquire Fitbit inally won EU antitrust approval in December 2020.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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